Declan Kidney has made four changes to the Ireland team for Saturday’s 2nd test against the All Blacks. While that’s not even a third of the team, the impression is that Kidney is looking for what the Whiff of Cordite calls “damage limitation” on Saturday. I’d love to be proven wrong, but these changes are a backward step for Ireland in my opinion. After including Zebo, Fitzpatrick and O’Mahony last week, the impression I had was that Kidney was finally looking to develop this team. It was belated, but I was encouraged.
As highlighted in that excellent Whiff of Cordite piece, this looks like a “rainy-day selection”, with the focus being on keeping the score down. So why did Kidney send out a fresh-faced team last week and look to move the ball around the pitch at pace? I may be proven wrong, but it looks as though it was a one-off experiment. So what was the point? As head coach of the national team, is Kidney not supposed to have a grand vision of how he wants his team to develop? Frankly, this ‘back to basics’ selection gives the impression that Deccie doesn’t have any concrete idea of where Ireland are going.
I for one refused to castigate the Irish performance last weekend. The opening 20 minutes encouraged me and I was hoping for more of that, done more accurately and with quicker ball. The likes of Zebo, O’Mahony and Fitzpatrick learned valuable lessons and I was hoping they could learn even more this weekend. But they’re dropped, and Trimble, D’Arcy and Ross return, with Kevin McLaughlin also included. The inclusions of D’Arcy and Trimble are the most defensive changes and are certainly a backward step. I understand that there are ‘horses for courses’ and that rain is predicted for Saturday, but does that mean the All Blacks drop Aaron Smith for the experience of Weepu, or Retallick for the solidity of Ali Williams? Not a chance.
D’Arcy comes in because of the injury to Earls but it’s still not the right selection for me. D’Arcy was impressive in Leinster’s run to the Heineken Cup, but his form for Ireland for at least a year now has been poor. He’ll make his tackles and he’ll grind out a few metres in contact. But what about Darren Cave? He had a disastrous cameo at the end of the 1st test, lucky not to be yellow-carded and partly at fault for Conrad Smith’s try. Now he’s out of the squad completely, after 8 minutes of action. Why not give him another chance, send him out with a more relaxed attitude and tell him to play his game?
Kidney knows exactly what D’Arcy offers to the team. This tour had to be about developing the Irish squad. While I’m not saying Kidney should be sending out teams to get beaten, we need to give these guys experience. Cave’s confidence will surely now be crushed and he’ll question whether he’s up to this level at all. Or what about playing McFadden in his best position at 12? Simon Zebo, one missed tackle aside, did just fine on his debut, showing a glimpse of his attacking thrust. Now he’s dropped to the bench to accomodate Trimble, another player who Kidney knows all about.
Fitzpatrick was the personification of the word ‘solid’ on his first cap. He never went backwards in the scrum and he contributed a few tackles around the pitch. I would’ve allowed him to keep the starting tighthead role, even if he were to come off at half-time. It might well work out that he plays 40 minutes anyway, but let him have the opening half, when Tony Woodcock really wants to prove his point. A second consecutive start for the Ulster prop would have been great experience for Fitzpatrick, especially after Deccie complained about the lack of that exact attribute.
The inclusion of Kevin McLaughlin at blindside is at least a positive. I would temper that by suggesting that the Leinster back-row has been selected for his prowess at the lineout and his defensive hunger. He’s an excellent player and I’m a huge fan, but McLaughlin’s selection again alludes to a defensive game plan. The major plus to including him is that Sean O’Brien may be spared the mountain of defensive work he got through last Saturday. But will we see O’Brien in the right places to use his strength and power on the ball? I don’t think we have yet this season.
I always make a big effort to look at the positives before each Ireland game. Kidney hasn’t done a good job with Ireland in the last few years, but I’m always willing to believe that coaches, just as players and people in general, can change. However, it looks like that just isn’t the case in this situation. Even if Ireland make it scrappy and limit New Zealand to just a few scores in the rain, what value is there in that? I want to see an Irish team that is confident and skillful enough to go out and look to beat every team they face. I believe we have the players to do that, if we can develop the team in the right way.
What do you think of the changes Kidney has made? Can Ireland stay close to the All Blacks on Saturday or will it only get worse? Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve written? Please leave a comment with your views.
Photos courtesy: Art Widak, Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.